Learn in the Great Outdoors at NJ Nature Preschools and Programs for Kids

As schools across the country cut recess in favor of test prep, and kids spend more time indoors staring at screens, there is a growing movement to reacquaint children with nature, free play, and the joy of exploring the great outdoors. Modeled after the forest kindergartens that have long been popular in Germany and Scandinavia, nature-based preschools, kindergartens, and other outdoor programs for young children are popping up all over the U.S., including New Jersey.

In these programs, children examine flora and fauna, climb trees, make art, splash in streams, play with mud, count sticks, sing, listen to stories, and more. Proponents of outdoor learning point to its many benefits, saying it can improve cognitive function and physical health, boost confidence and empathy, and even counter symptoms of ADHD. 

The Garden State offers a variety of options, from preschool programs that take place entirely outdoors to more traditional schools that place a premium on spending time outside. There are even parent-and-child classes, so grown-ups can get in on the fun, too. All promote child-led, unstructured play as a means to spark curiosity and foster learning and a love of nature. 

To find more opportunities for outdoor learning and exploration, check out NJ's great nature centers, and for a comprehensive selection of classes of all kinds, take a look at our guide to Classes and Enrichment Programs for NJ Kids

Outdoor Schools

The new Maplewood Outside School, for kids ages 2–4, will begin classes in September.

Maplewood Outside School – Maplewood
This brand-new school for ages 2–4 combines a progressive preschool curriculum with the "purposeful exploration" of an outdoor classroom. "Our program is designed to positively connect children with nature while learning how to foster relationships with peers," says director Christy Zolty, who recently moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn, where she was a head teacher at Brooklyn Nature Days. Classes are held in the South Mountain Reservation at Summit Field, and students can enroll by the semester or for the full school year, September–June. MOS is currently accepting applications for the fall semester. 

RELATED: South Mountain Reservation for Kids: Swings, Zoo, Fairy Trail

South Mountain Nature School, led by Mary Clair Sonneman (above), offers classes in the South Mountain Reservation. 

South Mountain Nature School – Maplewood
This popular program, founded in 2016 by Maplewood resident Mary Clair Sonneman, offers a full-year Forest Preschool for ages 3–6, as well as enrichment classes for ages 2–8 (most of the fall classes are already full, but one caregiver & child class is still open!). SMNS follows the Cedarsong Way, a philosophy that "honors the whole child and empowers them to be respectful of themselves and others while cultivating a deep love for the natural world," according to Sonneman, who holds a Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten Teacher certificate as well as NJ state teaching credentials. Classes are held in various locations in South Mountain Reservation. 

Indoor Schools with a Nature Focus

Nature's Nest features an outdoor classroom where kids explore, play, tend a garden, and more. 

Nature's Nest – Parsippany
Children spend most of the day outside at Nature's Nest, a child care center that serves kids from birth to age 6 (with before- and after-school care for kids up to age 13). Children go on daily walks and spend lots of time in the center's outdoor classroom, where they take part in gardening, painting, storytime, lunch, sensory play, and circle time. 

RELATED: Picking the Perfect New Jersey Preschool for Your Child

Students at Painted Oak Nature School aren't afraid to get dirty! 

Painted Oak Nature School – Hopewell
Painted Oak offers a nature immersion program inspired by Germany's waldkindergartens. Its preschool and kindergarten classes use a student-directed approach, and a majority of the day is spent in outdoor classrooms. Once a week, students take part in Forest School, where they climb trees, make earth art, track animals, build shelters, and more. 2017-18 preschool and kindergarten classes are full, but there are openings in its new Hand-in-Hand "Seeds" Art class for children 18 months – 3 years with a caregiver. 

Riverside Rhymes Nature Play School – Brick
This state-certified, in-home child care center caters to infants through age 5. Director and teacher Jessica Clayton places an emphasis on outside time (a minimum of 60 minutes/day) and play. "Children acquire long-term knowledge as they move through nature, or their interest areas, exploring the world around them," she writes on the school's website. Outdoor activities include regular walks to the nearby Metedeconk River, and nature walks in the meadow and forest. 

Nature hikes are an important part of the day at Westminster Nature Preschool. 

Westminster Nature Preschool – Middletown
Students at Westminster Nature Preschool explore the outdoors every day in safe weather conditions. The school, an extension of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, offers full-year programs in preschool (ages 2½, 3, and 4) and kindergarten. Nature hikes and outdoor exploration are an integral part of the curriculum, and the children help tend a garden that provides food to a church outreach program. As of August 30, the school still had limited availability in all of its classes. 

Parent-Led Programs

Forest School for All helps families start nature groups in their local communities. 

Forest School for All – Various locations
Parents are the teachers in Forest School for All, and anyone who is interested can start and lead a group in his or her community. The organization provides support to help you get started, including recommending a good spot to hold the class and helping you connect with other local families. FSFA offers three types of groups for parents and children of all ages: Forest Explorer is a free, unstructured program that meets year-round, while the Creator and Discoverer groups follow a more structured curriculum and have a registration fee. FSFA classes are currently offered in nine NJ counties; search the map to find one near you. Or start one of your own.

RELATED: Great Day Trips to New Jersey State Parks and Forests

Tinkergarten offers classes for kids ages 18 months to 8 years and caregivers.

Tinkergarten – Various locations
Tinkergarten classes are facilitated by certified leaders and are offered to kids in three age groups: 18 – 36 months, 3–5 years, 6–8. Classes typically run in eight-week sessions, and there is a fee to register. Like Forest School for All, Tinkergarten classes meet exclusively outdoors. A typical class includes an opening circle, a main activity focusing on open-ended exploration and play, a closing circle, and snack. Learn how to become a Tinkergarten leader, or find a class near you. 

Top photo: South Mountain Nature School. Photos courtesy of the schools.

Winter Hike to Cavern Point
Liberty State Park - 1:00 PM Pick
Wildlife Baby Shower Drive-Thru
Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge - 1:00 PM Pick
Cattus Island Nature Walks
Cattus Island County Park - 2:00 PM Pick
Live Animal Talks
Jake Branch County Park Nature Center - various times Pick
Neighborhood Guides
Activity Guides